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Final 3 minutes reveal Duke's holes

CHAPEL HILL — Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Sunday, the law applied to college basketball.

Up nine points with less than three minutes to go, the Blue Devils did absolutely nothing right and lost a game they should have won. Unfortunately, when people will look back on this instant classic everyone will remember the collapse. Nobody will recall the incredible basketball Duke played in Chapel Hill against one of the best and most athletic teams in the nation. But to chalk up this Duke loss to a few J.J. Redick threes that rimmed out or to several no-calls at the end is wrong, because the last three minutes of the game highlighted the Blue Devils’ biggest weaknesses.

The Tar Heels’ offense was fueled the entire game by a combination of furious effort on the offensive glass and Duke’s abysmal defensive rebounding. Sean May, a gifted 6-foot-8, soft-handed forward, grabbed 12 offensive boards, and UNC had 21 as a team. Duke had 22 defensive rebounds.

After Felton’s second free throw hit the back rim with 19 seconds left, Patrick Johnson—who had just entered the game to block out Marvin Williams—failed to keep the athletic forward from corralling the ball. To top it off, Johnson added a touch foul to allow UNC to extend the lead to two points.

Foul trouble exacerbated Duke’s woes on the boards, which were obvious even from the outset. Shavlik Randolph, who was actually energetic and effective for a stretch during the second half, fouled out with three minutes left after sitting much of the first half. Shelden Williams was also affected by foul trouble and often had to tone down his aggressiveness for fear of picking up fouls. If it wasn’t for some timely steals or blocked shots by Williams, the Tar Heels might have scored on every possession.

But the biggest problem for the Blue Devils—and one which has no solution—is the absence of a point guard. Daniel Ewing is not a point guard. He is a very good ball handler and is usually capable of bringing the ball down the court, despite coughing up the ball twice in the final three minutes. But Duke loses a lot because Sean Dockery is hurt. Ewing has to sacrifice energy fighting pressure advancing the ball and marking the fastest player on the opposite team.

“You play with the hand that you have, and that’s the way we’ve done it all year long,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “More so than that, it has a cumulative effect on Ewing. Maybe a turnover or two is not so much the result of not having Sean down, but not giving Daniel a chance to rest up off the ball a little bit.”

Despite all that went wrong throughout the game and during the final three minutes, it does not do the game justice to forget about all that went well for Duke. The team’s exceptional outside shooting gave the Blue Devils a chance at the upset. Redick in the first half was nearly automatic from long range, and Lee Melchionni took over in the second half, nailing five threes. Yes, Redick missed a good look from long range to win the game, and a wide open three from the corner with one minute left that would’ve put Duke up five, but everything was going wrong in the last three minutes.

Duke also, for one of the first times this season, maximized Shelden Williams on offense. During the stretch when Duke was down six at the half to when it took a nine-point lead, Williams touched the ball on nearly every possession. Using a combination of spin moves, head fakes, power dribbles and hook shots, he was able to score almost at will against May. And when UNC compensated and began to double and triple-team him, Melchionni was left wide open on the perimeter. Between the 16 and the three-minute marks in the second half, Duke had one of its most impressive offensive stretches of the year, given the caliber of the defense it was up against.

Finally, Duke showed the ability to disrupt the highest scoring offense in the nation. At times in the second half, the Tar Heels looked silly on offense—unable to even get decent looks at the basket. Even though the Blue Devils were often matched up against more athletic and talented players, they fought through screens to stifle North Carolina’s dribble penetration and easy looks on the interior.

So as the smoke from bonfires soars in the Chapel Hill air, the Blue Devils and their fans should have reason for optimism. In today’s college basketball game without any dominant teams, Duke is showing that it might actually have the pieces to have success in the postseason, so long as it can avoid Murphy’s Law down the stretch.

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